Battlestar Galactica and the war in Iraq

Battlestar Galactica is back for its third season. The first episode premiered last night on the Sci Fi Channel. Yesterday afternoon I ran across the following while reading my favorite conservative blog, The Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, in which a contributor, Jonah Goldberg, posted from an email he had received from a reader (scroll down to the 2:20 post from Friday Oct. 6), who said:
Ever since the astounding conclusion of last season's BSG, I was pumped for this year's new episodes. However, I'm getting a very bad vibe about it being a multi-episode Iraq war bashfest. In particular, the webisodes - which, in all honesty, I've only seen the first five or six - draw complimentary parallels between the jihadi "insurgents" and the human resistance forces on New Caprica.

Plus, there's a story on Zap2it.com where Mary McDonnell, in discussing this season's plot arc, commends the BSG brain trust for their "brave and beautiful act" in putting together this year's series.

A "brave & beautiful act," I believe, is vapid actorspeak for "speaking truth to power." To quote Krusty the Clown, "Oooooo, this is always death."

So I'm afraid for this one. Any words of encouragement?
In response, Mr. Goldberg merely commented, "I hear what this reader is saying, but they've earned my trust at the outset. So we'll see."

I rolled my eyes when I read that -- I read The Corner to give my eyeballs exactly that kind of swiveling exercise. But I hadn't watched any of the webisodes, so I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was (spoiler alert) that at the end of last season Vice President Gaius Baltar had won the election for president of the Colonies, after the president, Laura Roslin, had been caught trying to fix the election (you root for her to fix it! -- one of the amazing things about the show). As Charlemagne pointed out here some time ago, the series actually makes you root for a military dictatorship:
I seem to root for the military and their control of the government. I think, this silly group of civilians can't possibly know how to save the human race from sexy horrible robots! But then I say, "Oh. I guess I came in against freedom of representation. Freedom of the press. Etc." Then I feel like an ass.
Anyway, Baltar won the election and decided to move everyone from the colony ships down to this planet they had just discovered. The 40-odd thousand colonists have been on the run from Cylons -- the "sexy horrible robots" -- for a long time, but the people were growing weary, and here was a decent enough planet where they could lay down their burdens ("Lay Down Your Burdens" was the title of the Season Two finale).

And so down most of them went to the surface. Many months went by. The planet was fairly bleak. Nothing fancy here. They built tent shelters, formed a camp. A sparse existence on firm ground must be better than living on a spaceship that's constantly under attack. And it was peaceful. No sign of Cylons. The people thought they were out of the woods. Then suddenly the Cylons came back, found the folks defenseless, and forced a surrender from the sleazy, corrupt Baltar. The ships in orbit, with their skeleton crews, "jumped" away (the only way to ditch the Cylons when they show up) and left the people to endure brutal Cylon occupation. (They are coming back. We know this. It's fiction -- you can take it to the bank.)

What does this have to do with Iraq? Well ... now there's an insurgency against the occupation, complete with suicide bombings and the characters wrestling with the moral dilemmas of insurgent warfare. There is now a human Colonial Police Force, trained by the Cylons to maintain order. A suicide bomber blew up their graduation ceremony -- 33 dead. The parallel is too obvious to dwell on.

This is exactly what Mr. Goldberg's reader was worried about. And if I were conservative, the show would now be making me very uncomfortable. After all, in our national mythology we prefer our insurgencies to be staffed by evil extremists, our suicide bombers to be anonymous, dark-skinned, whacked-out, our occupiers to be white Republican men.

The purpose of war propaganda is to turn those Other people into its. The enemies are not really people anyway, are they? A neighbor is a person, a family member, a friend, and yes, so is a fictional character. Admiral Adama, former President Roslin, Starbuck -- these are people to me. They reside in a friendly place in my mind. I think about them, look forward to seeing them, root for them as I squirm on my couch. That's the power of fiction. It's every bit as powerful as propaganda (while it lasts -- propaganda is 24/7).

It's fairly subversive to do this, even under a fictional premise. That is why Mary McDonnell (Laura Roslin) praised the BSG creators for their "brave and beautiful act." And rightly so. They are doing the things that writers are supposed to do: Find something important about human nature, serve it up with style, expand the reader's (or viewer's) humanity, make you care about the characters. The old saw runs: Nonfiction uses the truth to tell lies, and fiction uses lies to tell the truth. Here's one truth: humanity is universal. Speaking truth to power "is always death," according to the Corner reader's Krustyite philosophy. But that's not it -- those in power already know the truth. They would just rather no one talk about it.


hormonedoc said...

Grendel got it right. One of the time tested powers of science fiction is allegory, the ability to get the viewer to transfer sympathies to see the world differently. Animal Farm, in that sense was science fiction. Now we've got BSG transforming perception. What if we were the occupied? What if people we thought of as our own were collaborating with our oppressors? For those who already oppose the war in Iraq, there is nothing mind expanding here. The big question is whether or not BSG will change any minds among the NASCAR set,those Joe Sixpacks who bleed red white and blue as long as they're not the ones who have to bleed the real stuff.

plutoniandepths said...

Unfortunately for your analysis, Ron Moore is a better writer than reducing the show to simplistic allegories.

He specficially denies that the show was an allusion to Iraq in his podcast on the season premiere. He goes on about it for a few minutes saying how there was no attempt to make the show about Iraq, although there are certainly parallels there. But so, he said, are there parallels about Nazi-occupied France, the West Bank, the colonial period of American history, and even the occupation of Gaul by the Romans.

The season premiere was about what happens in a society that is occupied in general. And what we see is that Ron Moore is saying that even though the humans on New Caprica are just half a step away from being completely exterminated, they begin to fight one another. This is the Precipice on which the human of the BSG world are now standing.

It's interesting how just a couple seasons ago, the human crew of the Pegasus under Admiral Cain was being allegorized as the evil American soldiers for their gleeful torturing of a Cylon, and now the Cylons are suddenly representative of American power. Let's also not forget all the gleefulness among the left. that erupted when Starbuck spent an entire episode personally torturing Loeben to extract info on a hidden nuke, and now it suddenly seems Starbuck is just a poor victim of the American Cylon might.

Sadly, given the kind of reaction that we are seeing as both liberals and conservatives bludgeon the show into a prop to justify their own worldviews, the show is proving more and more that it is NOT a reflection of the real world.

Instead, it seems the "real world" is becoming more and more a telling reflection of the show. Isn't that interesting?

Grendel said...

"It's interesting how just a couple seasons ago, the human crew of the Pegasus under Admiral Cain was being allegorized as the evil American soldiers for their gleeful torturing of a Cylon, and now the Cylons are suddenly representative of American power."

That is so true. Thanks to hormonedoc and plutoniandepths for commenting on this. For the record, I never said it was an allegory, and I appreciate that a show that is about an occupation has parallels with other real-world occupations. Iraq happens to be the one Americans are concerned with most right now, and that is why I submit that the show can be seen as subversive.

I didn't meant to imply that I thought that Ron Moore set out to make an allegory about Iraq. But even if he had, any artist worth his salt would deny it. Tolkien always claimed that the Ring was not a stand-in for nuclear weapons, but it's very hard to not see it at least partly as such, given that he composed the book in the 1940s-50s. I go so far as to claim that an artist is not in fact the final say-so on the nature of the subtext of his work. The reader is, or in this case, the viewer. Art comes at least partly from the subconscious, and no matter what Ron Moore's conscious mind says, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

But I agree the show confounds simplistic analysis and ricochets all over the political spectrum. I would welcome further insights from people like you, who clearly have studied the show much more than I have. One thing I haven't read much about -- I am only a moderate fan and have not looked into the doubtless extensive theorizing about this -- is the fact that the Cylons seem to be kind of Christian fundamentalists, whereas the colonists are polytheists -- specifically Greek god worshippers. Now that's just really odd and fascinating.

I was not aware of political battles raging about the show and have no intention of joining any. If as you say both sides of the current spectrum bludgeon the show to justify their own worldviews ... man, that's a great compliment to Ron Moore and the creative team behind the show.

Pete said...

You're all wrong. Here's why.

BSG seems to be exploring something that resonates with the current state of world affairs, sure. While I'm sure they're glad to exploit that resonance to the fullest, I think it's probably tertiary. I think this is especially true given that the show seems to be on the cusp of complicating its moral universe, big time.

There was a phrase uttered in passing by Leoben in the premiere- in telling Starbuck all about how much she was going to love him, he mentioned his own "spiritual clarity." That, I think, is the show's newest and most central theme. Whereas the last two season have largely explored questions of political legitimacy and democracy-- not, exactly, irrelevant to current affairs-- this third one seems to be going for something more cosmic.

People do interesting things when they have "spiritual clarity." Awful and beautiful things, noble and ugly things, atrocious and necessary things, and I expect that the show will be exploring all that on both sides of the conflict. Like most modern folks, I simultaneously crave and distrust "spiritual clarity." Good drama can show how a person can claim and surrender the moral high ground all in the same action. "The Wire," for those of you who have seen it, is full of that sort of thing.

I don't mean to sound like a relativist. I'm not, and I don't think Ronald Moore is, either. I think he's exploring fallible righteousness: a very interesting and very current fact of the world. People can be sympathetic and wrong at the same time. They can even be right and wrong at the same time. The best characters, to my mind, usually are.

Is that criticism of the American Right? Maybe. But these days, pretty much anything that isn't an express affirmation of the American Right is attacked for its bias. So fuck them anyway. I don't exactly trust Jonah Goldberg to make these judgments for me. I think we can be pretty sure that so long as the show provides its situations with more nuance than assholes like Goldberg are comfortable allowing to ANYTHING, they're going to have a problem with it. I mean, honestly. It's a really kind of fucked up what's controversial in this day and age. The American right has spent so much of the last six years justifying unchecked authority that any challenge to the very idea-- even on the level of a cable drama-- is subject to suspicion. What are they going after next, Law and Order? Now there's a show that speaks truth to power.

I'm joking about that last part.

Pete said...

I was a little cranky with that last one. Sorry.

But one more thing-

We live in a time in which a lot of things are "partisan" for no reason other than to allow for the appearance of legitimate disagreement where it otherwise would not exist.

If a television show- a television show!- can't show torture or resistance to an occupying power without being labeled as partisan to one side or the other in the current debate, that's fucked up. It just displays the problem with the debate. We've gotten to the point where simply dramatizing or talking about something honestly and with complexity is a partisan act. It begs a lot of questions about the terms of debate.I'm sick of the right wing in this country getting to define all the terms. This is a direct consequence of political correctness.

So maybe, in the current sense, BSG is being partisan. But certainly not in any legitimate sense worth entertaining. What frustrates me most is that some of you, who I know share my politics, are satisfied to believe that BSG is sticking it to the man. But in the satisfaction of that, we concede, once again, the semantics of the debate. They'll still apply when we are talking about something more important.

This makes me want to roar.

bihari said...

I just discovered BSG and have been devouring it on DVD, feeling sort of embarrassed for liking it, and kind of nerdy for finding it debate-generating. But lo! I am not alone! Now I feel legit!

It's enough to make me want to turn the cable back on again so I can watch Season 3 without waiting for the DVDs.

Grendel said...

Oh Bihari! They get those DVDs out superfast. Won't be too many months before you'll get Season 3.0, I'm sure. But also sorry if you've run into too many spoilers here.

And Mr. Goldberg has written an article filling out his opinions on Battlestar Iraqtica. If I get time, I may respond here. To be honest I haven't read it yet.

Pete said...

Well, he of course thinks it's "stupid," because the purpose of sci-fi is escapism, a point that seems to exist in complete ignorance of the history of the genre, but hey.

I love his notion, too, that this new "relevance" shows that the show is no longer "literary." I would think that displaying a hairy moral issue from multiple angles is one of the things literature does best. Again, I have to wonder what Mr. Goldberg is reading if he thinks a work of art cannot both be controversial and literary. I can't think of a great work of literature that doesn't address difficult questions.

I'm all but certain that the show is moving towards more nuanced and complicated cylon characters, and that assumption is a big part of my comments here. I saw a lot of clues for this in the premiere. Did anyone else pick up on that? I have a feeling that the moral decisions are only going to get more and more complicated.

One of the things that makes BSG so great is that the moral decisions never feel "forced" as Goldberg claims they do here. If I didn't find all of this dramatically persuasive, I'd probably be annoyed myself.

Trevor Jackson said...

Pete said, "If a television show- a television show!- can't show torture or resistance to an occupying power without being labeled as partisan to one side or the other in the current debate, that's fucked up. It just displays the problem with the debate. We've gotten to the point where simply dramatizing or talking about something honestly and with complexity is a partisan act."

I'm painting this on a pasteboard and wearing it around downtown today. Come watch. So well put.

Pete said...

I just want to say that, obviously, the complaints have proven to be stupid.

Just a reminder of how stupid are the people who were oh so genuinely concerned about Bstar's bias, here's Jonah Goldberg today:

How Bush Should Handle Loss [Jonah Goldberg]
I think James Baker and Dick Cheney should take Bush out to the woods around Camp David. After 24 hours in a sweat lodge, he should be given only a loin cloth, a hunting knife and a canteen of water. Bush should then set out to track and kill a black bear, after which he should eat its still beating heart so he can absorb its spirit. He should then fly back to Washington in Marine 1. His torso still scratched from the bear's claws, his face bloodied and steaming in the November chill, he should immediately give a press conference at which he throws the bearskin on the front row of the press corps, completely enveloping Helen Thomas, declaring, "I'm not going anywhere."

This will send important messages to Democrats and well as to our enemies overseas, who are no doubt high-fiving as we speak.
Posted at 6:49 AM

Is he being ironic? Why? To what rhetorical end? Is he hoping humorless liberals will fail to get the joke? Ok, fine. But then what does that accomplish, exactly?

There's a simple answer here, of course.

He, like all such people who start offensively stupid arguments for a living, is a tool.

Here's the problem with the world today: we are beset by ironic tools.

Yep. That's right. The very best sort of tool. We're thick with em. And even they don't know what the hell they're even doing here. So how am I to know?